Sometimes the ol' bait-and-switch business is a good thing. Audiences who pushed Rise of the Planet of the Apes to a very respectable $54 million opening weekend were probably expecting nothing more than a bit of action-heavy August escapism, but we ended up with something very different: a thoughtful character study that has more in common with the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries than any of the superhero flicks we've seen this summer. Rise has more than its fair share of digital wizardry and thrilling action sequences, but it's more concerned with telling the story of one character than an entire planet of them.
That character definitely isn't Will Rodman (James Franco), the neuroscientist who gets the dramatic ball rolling by developing a drug that could offer a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Will has a very personal stake in his research; since Alzheimer's is slowly destroying his own father (John Lithgow), this young and very sympathetic Doc Frankenstein is willing to dive headlong into a process that could, I don't know, cause apes to eventually take over the entire world or something crazy like that. Disaster strikes in the film's early scenes and Will's project is shut down, but not before he is saddled with an unexpected side effect of his research: a supersmart baby chimp that Will's father names Caesar. Will takes the little ape home and Caesar becomes a part of the family—a surrogate son to Will and grandson to the elder Rodman, whose condition continues to deteriorate.
But what is Caesar, really? That's the question that takes center stage as Caesar, masterfully played from infancy to adulthood by motion-capture pro Andy Serkis, grows up and begins to doubt his role in the human family that has adopted him. Caesar eventually finds himself removed from the Rodman home and placed in an ape concentration camp run by a sadistic young man (the Harry Potter series' Tom Felton) and his indifferent father (Brian Cox). This is where the film really finds its legs as Caesar, who has a prehensile foot in both the human and ape worlds but doesn't really belong in either, goes from misfit to revolutionary. Rise is thoughtful from the beginning, with its well-meaning if heavy-handed ruminations on animal testing, identity, and nature-versus-nurture, but it's when Caesar begins to interact with other apes that the film really becomes something special.
Led by talented Brit director Rupert Wyatt, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver hit all the high marks in the making of a revolutionary, from cognitive dissonance to Caesar's eventual radicalization. And, since Caesar is one of the most likeable movie heroes of the year so far, we cheer him on every step of the way. Though the film inevitably becomes an us-versus-them scenario that culminates in a fantastic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, our sympathies remain firmly aligned with "them." There's certainly nothing new about nonhuman characters displaying more humanity than the human ones, but Rise handles the reversal so deftly and effectively that it feels fresh and even inventive.
In fact, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is just about as successful as a prequel/reboot/remake can be. Purists might be displeased that the film ultimately rewrites the history that was laid out, somewhat confusingly, in the first five Planet of the Apes films, but plenty of nods are thrown in to keep fans happy. Much of what Caesar and his fellow apes endure throughout the movie mirrors what was visited upon Charlton Heston's ill-fated astronaut Taylor in the 1968 original, and clever allusions are made to the iconic imagery of the first film and several key plot points of the entire series. (If you want to get technical about it, Rise could be viewed as a remake of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which cast the great Roddy McDowall in the role of Caesar.)
Though some of the CG apes have that strange, weightless look that still mars even the best digital creations, New Zealand's Weta Digital has accomplished what will surely be game-changing results with facial expression and realistic eye movement. An FX pro once told me that the next frontier in digital FX would be face and hand movement—two things that are notoriously difficult to render. If that's the case, then Rise is certainly a landmark film from a visual FX perspective. Fortunately, the filmmakers never forget that all those bells and whistles are meaningless without a compelling story about an unforgettable hero. Rise can be an emotionally grueling experience at times—particularly for animal lovers—but it's one of the most satisfying movies of the summer.